InfoWorld review: Mac OS X Lion, more than multitouch

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Finder's new All My Files view groups files by type rather than location. Scrollable rows of icons make good use of limited screen space.

Finder's other new feature of note is search suggestions. If you type "pd" into Finder's search field, you'll not only see a list of files containing that pattern, but a menu appears that suggests doing a "kind" search for PDF documents. Click on the suggestion to perform that search.

You may not need to resort to Finder for searches. Good old Spotlight has been wired for Quick Look and drag and drop for its results, and hovering over a result displays a preview in a popover window.

Mac OS X Lion: Networking and collaboration There are lots of ways to move files across a network, but they all require enough advance setup that sneakernet remains a popular option. Lion lets you swap files wirelessly between your notebook and desktop Macs, or with a group of people you just met at a conference. Clicking the AirDrop icon in Lion's Finder instantly sets up and globally advertises a special ad hoc wireless node.

All Lion users running AirDrop can see each other, provided they're in Wi-Fi range and have a late-2008 or newer Mac model (older versions don't have the Wi-Fi chipset required to support AirDrop). You never see a remote Mac's files, only a named icon that works as a drop zone for the files you want to copy. It's secure -- every transfer requires the recipient's permission, and closing or navigating out of Finder's AirDrop view makes you vanish from other users' screens.

Mac users that work in a Windows environment will be pleased to discover that Lion integrates fairly robust support for Microsoft DFS. Prior versions of OS X required third-party software to enable access to DFS shares.

The bundled Mail app, which has always had a purely utilitarian feel to it, has received a thorough overhaul. Under the hood, Apple has added Exchange Server 2010 compatibility, including the ability to set your vacation response. Mail's new default layout nixes the inbox list to create a clean two-column interface: message summaries on the left, message content on the right. Each summary includes a few lines of the body and makes good use of typography to distinguish each message element. Messages are grouped into conversations by subject line, and you can see the full content of all related messages in one continuously scrollable view by clicking on the last message in the thread. This adds up to quicker inbox triage and less digging through past messages to make sense of replies.

In addition to supporting Exchange Server 2010, Mail has a new space-efficient layout that displays message summaries on the left and multiple message bodies on the right.

Mac OS X Lion: Time to upgradeLion is nothing but win for nearly all Mac users. The only users who won't benefit from Lion are those who remain dependent on PowerPC applications. Rosetta, the PowerPC instruction translator that allowed pre-Intel apps to run on Snow Leopard, is no more. Universal apps that include PowerPC and Intel code will run on Lion, but if you're dependent on PowerPC software that you can't upgrade, it's best to stick with Snow Leopard.

Among professional users and shops with multiple Macs, Lion is about much more than pervasive multitouch support. Lion has plenty of features for serious users. It compensates for several best practices that professionals routinely skip. It stems accidental data loss through versions, autosave, and local snapshots. Macs are multi-user by nature, and with Lion it's now possible for several remote users to share a Mac, with each user getting a dedicated virtual session that doesn't interfere with the console. Apple's policies on virtualization have relaxed considerably, allowing you to run up to three simultaneous OS X instances on a single Mac. Yes, it must still be a Mac, but previously you had to purchase a full-price license to run OS X Server as a virtual guest, and OS X client guests were forbidden.

Serious users have to appreciate the multi-layered security that's new to Lion. At the lowest level, full disk encryption makes your machine useless to anyone who doesn't have your password. In the OS, virtual memory pages are randomized so that overflow or insertion exploits are likely to expand into unallocated memory and trigger a fault. Application sandboxing limits program access to system resources during operation. An app must list the privileges it requires ("entitlements") when it is submitted to the App Store or otherwise signed. Apple will scrutinize App Store submissions to ensure that any potentially risky entitlement is backed by a convincing rationale. An app that asks for too much will be denied. At run time, sandboxed apps (soon, all Lion apps in the Mac App Store will have to be sandboxed) crater if they try to perform any unapproved action. If malicious code is somehow attached to a sandboxed app, that malware is subject to the same limitations as the app itself. As soon as it tries to do anything nefarious, the app will be terminated. Signed apps with explicit entitlements are a powerful defense, and App Store creates a line of accountability to the developer.

Lastly, groups of Lion users, or a mix of iOS and Mac users in a business setting, will benefit greatly from setting up a server, whether it's a dedicated machine like a Mac mini or Mac Pro or even an iMac desktop with server duties. Once you put a Lion Server in place, Profile Manager will be a godsend. As far as justifying a Lion upgrade for your Macs, realize that $29 for Lion and $49 for Lion Server buy you a marvelous degree of remote configuration, policy enforcement, and a self-service Web portal that lets users reset their own forgotten passwords. There's more to Lion Server than that, but that alone is well worth having.

There have been incremental OS X upgrades that you could take or leave. Lion isn't like that. Apple is no longer afraid to tell users who don't upgrade, "You're going to be left behind." That which is new in Lion will not be backed into Snow Leopard. Unless I miss my guess, by this time next year a preponderance of apps on Mac App Store will list "Lion and later" as required. Apple has made leaping to Lion affordable, easy, fun, and safe. If you're wired to wait for the second or third point release, suit yourself. I've converted a facility with eight Macs, machines that I rely on to make a living, from Snow Leopard to Lion with no migration hassles. It's time to upgrade to Lion.

This story, "InfoWorld review: Mac OS X Lion, more than multitouch," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in Mac OS X at InfoWorld.com. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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This story, "InfoWorld review: Mac OS X Lion, more than multitouch" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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